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The family of a slain Illinois boy, allegedly killed by his own parents, say he made the “ultimate sacrifice” to save his younger brother.
The body of Andrew "AJ" Freund was discovered last week in a shallow grave in a remote area of Woodstock, Illinois, days after his parents had reported him missing. Authorities quickly ruled out abduction as a possibility and began focusing their attention on those parents, JoAnn Cunningham, 36, and Andrew Freund Sr., 60, ultimately charging each with five counts of murder after the boy's body was found. Prosecutors say he was forced to sit in a frigid shower before being beaten all over his body until he died.
They have agreed to give up temporary custody of their other son, a 4-year-old, and let the state's child welfare agency care for him.
That’s the one silver lining in the boy’s tragic death, his extended family says.
"He was, and will always be, our loving and caring little boy," a statement released by Chicago-based attorney Peter Flowers on behalf of AJ's former foster parents, grandmother and older brother says, according to the Daily Herald in Chicago. "With his brave short life, AJ made the ultimate sacrifice to save his younger brother and unborn sibling. His life shall not be in vain. AJ will always be our little superhero."
Records released by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and obtained by Oxygen.com revealed that the state’s welfare agency had multiple interactions with the family, starting in 2012 before the victim was even born. DCFS determined on several occasions that allegations of child mistreatment were "unfounded," raising questions about whether signs of abuse were missed.
When AJ was born in 2013, Cunningham’s toxicology screen tested positive for opiates and benzodiazepines, according to DCFS, so he was taken away from her and placed with a relative, but only for a while - he was reunited with his mother at 18 months old.
"We, the family that lovingly cared for Andrew (AJ) during the first 18 months of his life and were then allowed to be in his life for another 26 months until the parents abruptly prevented us from having any further contact with him, want everyone to know that AJ was loved by us with all our hearts," the family's statement put out by Flowers says.
They wrote that he was a curious child who loved books, puzzles, fire trucks, bulldozers, and Ninja Turtles.
The child was removed from his parents' home once again in December and taken to the emergency room with bruising on his hip - an injury that would later be attributed to his family's dog pawing at him despite suspicions it was abuse. It was one of several abuse allegations that DCFS said they found to be unfounded.
Prosecutors have filed a petition to completely terminate the parents’ rights over AJ's brother, the Associated Press reports. A court-appointed advocate is scheduled to meet with the younger sibling to submit a report about his current state of well-being.
Permanent wardship will be determined in future court hearings as it has to be proven that the parents are unfit to care for the child. He was placed in a different home after AJ was reported missing, the Chicago Tribune reports.
Cunningham is also about seven months pregnant with another child.
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